Panama Papers Leak Is The Result Of Unprecedented Media Collaboration
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The size of the Panama Papers leak is bigger than anything we've seen before - more than 11 million documents. And the size of the media coordination on this story is also unprecedented. A hundred news organizations from all over the world spent up to a year studying these documents in secret. They worked in more than 25 languages, and they all published their stories at the same time. The man who organized that operation is Gerard Ryle of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Welcome.
GERARD RYLE: Oh, thank you. Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: This leak first came to a German newspaper which reached out to you. And then how did you get to - let's get a hundred other news organizations from all over the world involved in this?
RYLE: Well, we'd actually been working with the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung who got the - they got the material before with the - other organizations like the BBC and The Guardian in Britain. So we had a - I guess a - kind of a trust built up over the last couple of years. It was really a matter of just going around the world and talking to the other media organizations we'd worked with before but also looking at the documents and seeing what other countries we might want to bring in.
SHAPIRO: So let's say - you look at these documents, and you say, oh, there's something really interesting here in Iceland. We've never worked with an Icelandic news organization before. What - do you just start cold-calling Iceland news organizations and say, we've got a big scoop we want to let you in on?
RYLE: Well, it's a good example to use because, in fact, we did realize that there was a lot of material, a lot of names from Iceland. And of course, they meant very - they meant nothing, really, to me or to most of our reporters. So we reached out to our colleagues in Sweden, and they recommended somebody in Iceland who ended up being an amazing journalist. We'd never worked with him before. I flew to Iceland. We talked. Some of our reporters went over there to do more reporting in Iceland. And in the end, of course, now we're seeing protests in the streets of Iceland.
SHAPIRO: OK, so you've assembled this group of a hundred news organizations all over the world. How do you give them all access to more than 11 million documents and do it in secret?
RYLE: We would never be able to do this kind of collaboration even five, six years ago. But technology has advanced so much that we can make all of these documents available over the Internet and pipe them right into all the newsrooms so that, I mean, we can have 10 reporters working in one newsroom. We can have 20 in another. We can have five in another. And they can all see the same documents, and we basically host all of the documents on servers and pipe them down over the Internet.
SHAPIRO: Were you, every day, afraid that things would leak and be published before everybody was ready?
RYLE: It was a big risk. At the beginning, the German newspaper was very keen to publish very fast, and it took a lot of managing to keep everyone holding the line and making sure that everyone just remain calm, especially when news stories would happen that we knew more about because of the papers.
SHAPIRO: Can you give us an example of one of those news stories that came out that made people say, oh, we know more about this; they we want to publish, and you had to say, nope, not yet.
RYLE: Well, he had a - we have a huge scandal happening in Brazil that's still going on that's involves the president there and the former president. The former president got arrested (laughter). And of course, the Brazilian reporters immediately wanted to jump in because we had already identified about a hundred offshore companies that we - that the Brazilian authorities didn't know about - of course, didn't know about them until we start publishing our documents.
So you know, the instinct there was, we need to start reporting on this; we have to. So we had to calm everyone down and say, no. You lose something along the way sometimes as well, but for the greater good of the project, we had to hold the line.
SHAPIRO: Journalists have a general reputation for being a little protective of their turf, maybe having sharp elbows. Did you have to overcome that tendency or did you find that the reputation is not deserved?
RYLE: No, and in fact, I had the reputation myself for most of my career.
RYLE: And I had to unlearn everything I had learned as a journalist to do this kind of work. I mean, most of our careers, we basically don't even tell our editors what we're working on.
RYLE: And so we had to change everyone's minds, and we've managed to do that over time. You know, the journalists actually end up training each other because as new collaborative partners come in, the ones you worked with before convince the new people joining that, in fact, it is worth their while helping each other. And they will eventually get a better story if we all work together.
SHAPIRO: Was there ever a moment where you were - I don't know - on the treadmill at the gym or driving to work and you thought, if this goes awry, it's going to be a disaster, but if we pull it off, good Lord, it's going to be a big deal. I mean, can you take me into how this felt in the moments leading up to publication?
RYLE: Well, I mean, as a journalist, you always have a lot of doubts and worries and concerns and strains. I mean, I think I've aged 10 years in the last 12 months. It's very stressful. You have to always remember your first reaction when you saw the documents first to kind of gauge about whether or not this is actually of public interest. And then you've got to hold that moment for 12 months while you do the work.
SHAPIRO: Gerard Ryle, congratulations on the big scoop.
RYLE: Thank you very much.
SHAPIRO: Gerard Ryle directs the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists which coordinated this week's reporting on the Panama Papers.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.